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In downturn, Harlem sees hope in opening restaurants

In downturn, Harlem sees hope in opening restaurants

HarlemFood

(Photos by Vadim Lavrusik)

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

After running a small cupcake shop in the West Village for three years, Tonnie Rozier decided to come back to his roots by opening up a second shop in Harlem.

Rozier, 40, said he hadn’t considered opening up a shop in Harlem because the rent always seemed so high. But when a friend approached him with a location off Lenox Avenue in Central Harlem last spring with a great rent price, he couldn’t resist.

He considered the fact that he was taking a risk with the recession taking a toll on small and big businesses alike. But Rozier was looking further ahead, and already noticing new businesses moving into the neighborhood. And it was a homecoming for the Harlemite who grew up and has lots of family there.

Tonnie’s Minis Opens in Harlem (Audio by Vadim Lavrusik)

“Harlem has been on its way back for many years now. And I saw the vision, but never thought it would become what is has become today,” Rozier said.

Though there’s more than 40 cupcake shops in Manhattan, Tonnie’s Minis is the first in Harlem. But it’s not the only first for a neighborhood that is seeing new food businesses (map) opening up and the community buzzing that these are signs of economic recovery.

Part of the buzz stems from new jobs that these new restaurants will create. Applebee’s alone is hiring 250 new workers for next week’s opening off 125th Street. The neighborhood is also awaiting the openings of several restaurants off Lenox Avenue, including a Jamaican and soul food restaurant called Jams, rotisserie chicken shack Spinners, and OneBar, a high-scale bar.

Though the exact number of restaurants opened in Harlem in the last year was unavailable, Community Board 10 has approved 49 liquor licenses so far this year.

Franc Perry, chairman of Community Board 10, which represents Central Harlem, said though he didn’t want to jump to conclusions on what that means, he certainly is optimistic about the opportunities it brings into Central Harlem – a neighborhood with an unemployment rate topping 20 percent. The city’s overall rate is 10.3 percent.

Though there has been a spurt of restaurants openings in Harlem, Andrew Rigie, director of operations at New York State Restaurant Association, said there is no doubt that the economy has still created a dip in restaurants’ sales. People are cutting back on going out, and one would think that Harlem would be worse off than other neighborhoods with such a high jobless rate. Though more new restuarants are opening, those that have been open longer have better chances of weathering the stark economy because they already have a customer base, experience and operating capital, Rigie said.

Harlem welcomes ‘Eatin’ good in the neighborhood’

So why would anyone want to open a restaurant during such economic turmoil, and why in Harlem? For Zane Tankel, CEO of Apple-Metro, which operates 34 Applebee’s locations in the New York metro area, the answer is simple. Demand in Harlem, plus cheap rent, a dash of risk, and years of experience is why Tankel is opening an Applebee’s on 125th Street.

“I think it is an underserved community,” Tankel said. “There are few places there right now where a large group of people can go in and sit down and get some good food for a reasonable price.”

Damaa Bell, who writes the UPTOWNFlavor blog on food news, said she thinks the new Applebee’s will be successful in Harlem because there is a shortage of restaurants that can accommodate large groups.

“When you think of dining in Harlem they are often small venues that can accommodate up to 10 diners max. An Applebee’s would be popular with families,” Bell said.

Bell points out that an Applebee’s just opened in the Marble Hill area has been successful because it is the only eatery of its type in the neighborhood, which she says is similar to Harlem.

Tankel said he also hopes he can attract some late-night customers. Though many restaurants in the area close around 9 p.m., Applebee’s will be open until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. He acknowledges that maybe there is a lack of late-night demand or owners worry about crime, but said that is something he will have to re-evaluate after seeing how business goes.

“We’ll see how it pans out because we’re not immune to the economy, but we’ve definitely made the adjustments,” Tankel said. Though sales are down a bit at some of his locations, Tankel said they attract people by offering them value deals like bundling menu items with a $20 deal for an appetizer and two entrees. This keeps the total bill higher for the restaurant, but is still a good deal for the customers, he said.

On Tuesday, the restaurant’s hiring center was full of people filling out applications for the 250 full- and part-time positions available. The Labor Department reported Friday that the national jobless rate had dropped from 10.2 to 10 percent, the strongest report since the recession began – a glimmer of hope for those that have recently lost jobs.

Jeffrey McCaskill, 20, stopped in between classes at The College of Technology to fill out an application for a cook. McCaskill, who is currently unemployed, said he needs to get a job to help pay the family bills.

He’s predicting the restaurant, which sits at the corner of 125 Street and 5th Avenue, will be really busy despite the downturn.

“Sure people are struggling, but I think you’re starting to see more places opening up and they’re starting to build again,” he said. “It’s great. It gives a chance for people to get a job.”

McCaskill is one of 5,000 people that had filled out applications as of Thursday, according to Tankel.

“I hope I get it,” McCaskill said.

Real estate and a developing neighborhood

Though Tankel had been looking to open a franchise in Harlem for about six years, each time a potential location came up he was faced with obstacles in construction or price.

However, with the drop in real estate prices, rents in the neighborhood have gone down dramatically too, which is why Tankel took advantage of the location, he said.

Charles Belanger, a real estate broker turned restaurant owner, knows that better than anyone.

“The market obviously collapsed,” he said. “So I went into the chicken business.”

Belanger, who was a broker for more than 20 years in Manhattan, took his store front real estate office off Lenox Avenue and turned it into a rotisserie chicken and sandwich shop. On Thursday, he was working on cleaning the entryway of the shop on its first day open. Customers slowed to see what the new restaurant had to offer, some eyeing the side real estate office signs still visible from its previous incarnation..

Belanger already had the location and didn’t want to just give up on the space. A food business made sense for the neighborhood, he said.
“People gotta eat.”

Because it is a low-income neighborhood, he said it wouldn’t make sense to open an electronics store, which would be difficult to compete with a big box store that gets its products less expensibely from overseas.

“You can’t ship a roast beef sandwich from China though,” he said.

Belanger said he decided to stay in Central Harlem because of the growth in real estate development and businesses the neighborhood has seen in recent years.

“Harlem does have a bright future,” he said. “It’s an area in Manhattan that has seen a lot of growth in recent years.”

He said a combination of factors like city tax breaks contributed to the growth. Also, The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Corp. has given $2.5 million in loans over the last 12 years to restaurants in Harlem, giving them the necessary cash to get started.

But most residents will point to the Clinton Foundation’s move into the neighborhood and its sweeping efforts to improve the neighborhood. Last year, the foundation launched the Harlem Restaurant Program, which used public funds and tax incentives to teach restauranteurs in the neighborhood better business skills.

Richard Howard, who stops at Rozier’s new cupcake shop almost eveyday after he picks his kids up from school, said ever since Clinton’s foundation came to Harlem a lot of new businesses moved into the neighborhood.

“I think that Harlem has kinda become the new mecca of new businesses,” Howard said. “It’s becoming like a SoHo or Delancey street. Well, now it’s Harlem.”

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Posted in Business, Featured, Restaurants1 Comment

Controversy calms for Harlem’s Obama Fried Chicken and Pizza restaurant

Controversy calms for Harlem’s Obama Fried Chicken and Pizza restaurant

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Obama Fried Chicken and Pizza in Harlem renamed its restaurant after President Obama after he was elected. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

The bright red signs reading “Obama Fried Chicken & Pizza” still hang proudly atop the fried chicken store in Harlem, while inside, the new name is written on tape covering the original name,  “Kennedy Fried Chicken.”

For those not from the neighborhood, it’s still a sight to see, said Mamadou Diallo, manager of the store at 116 Street and Nicholas Avenue.

“Tourists driving by always stop to take pictures in front of the restaurant,” the 32-year-old said.

But after causing a stir last spring by renaming the fried chicken restaurant after the first black president, people in the neighborhood have gotten used to the new name and questions of cultural identity have faded away.

“Things are pretty quiet now,” Diallo said.

After President Obama was inaugurated, several New York City establishments renamed or began naming products to pay homage to him. In Brooklyn, a shop opened named Obama Beauty Supply; the Sixpoint Craft Ales brewery named a beer after Obama; and then came Obama Fried Chicken in Harlem and Brownsville.

The Harlem restaurant was tied into an uproar with community leaders in Brooklyn, including Councilman Charles Barron and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who held rallies protesting the name as being stereotypical and degrading toward African-Americans.

Harlem’s Obama Fried Chicken, which operates under a separate owner from the Brooklyn location on Rutland Road, took its signs down for about a month, said Diallo. Then other members of the community complained, he said. But after checking into possible legal issues with having the name, the signs went back up. The Brooklyn owner kept his signs up because they cost $5,000, according to a New York Times report. Diallo said his signs cost only $500.

“You’re never going to make everyone happy,” Diallo said.

Apparently, many who were offended by the signage at first have warmed up to it.

Stopping into the restaurant recently, Ebony Brown, 26,  said she thought the name was ridiculous at first.

Though the signage outside the restaurant have been updated, inside the old "Kennedy" in Kennedy Chicken is taped over. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

Though the signs outside the restaurant have been updated, inside the old “Kennedy” in Kennedy Fried Chicken is taped over. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

“Everyone was excited with Obama’s win, naming their kids after him and all sorts of stuff. But when I saw this, you know, naming a chicken spot after Obama just reinforces stereotypes of us black people,” said Brown, who lives in Harlem. “It’s passing by now, though.”

In a New York Daily News poll, readers were asked whether the shops should be allowed to use Obama’s name. A 68 percent majority selected the option: “Sure, it’s capitalism.” Others are indifferent. For Calvin Bowers, good food is good food, he said. Bowers works as a super across the street from Obama Fried Chicken and said he’s been going there “for five months straight, every day.”

Bowers said that as a black man, it doesn’t make a difference to him who it’s named after and what stereotypes people think it puts off.

“I am just trying to get something to eat,” he said. “You can’t beat it.”

Some African-American cultural sensitivities aren’t always as obvious to business owners from other parts of the world. Diallo, who emigrated from Guinea, Western Africa, in 2000, said the owner simply liked the new president because of his African heritage. As far as connecting fried chicken and a black president, Diallo said in his country many tribes are associated with different foods. His tribe, for example, is associated with eating lots of yam.

“If you go to a Hispanic area of town, you’re going to see a lot of tortillas, and that sort of thing,” Diallo said. “Well, then what’s the big deal?”

A lot of the criticism also came from people saying the restaurants were exploiting Obama’s name for profit. But Diallo said the Harlem business has stayed the same.

He also points to the many other products that took on the Obama name after he was elected, like Change Hot Sauce, which bears a drawing of Obama and was made as a limited product by Garden Row Foods in Illinois. The company sent the restaurant a sample, saying it could make more if the restaurant wanted to buy it.

"Change" hot sauce was send to Obama Fried Chicken and Pizza after they renamed. The company would not say whether they have sold the product or not. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

“Change” hot sauce was sent to Obama Fried Chicken & Pizza. The company would not say whether it has sold more of the product. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

A worker at that company, who would not give his name, said Garden Row makes lots of different hot sauces for different occasions and this was no exception. He would not disclose whether they had sold any of the Change hot sauces or not.

But even though Diallo said business is the same, it at least draws some new customers.

Amin Nuani, 32, came into Harlem’s Obama Fried Chicken after seeing the name.

“Wow, it was the first time we saw something with Obama’s name on it like that,” Nuani said. “I think something with his name on it will definitely draw people in, especially in Harlem. But why not, he is our president.”

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Posted in Diversity, Featured1 Comment

GoMobo looks to expand online, on-the-go food ordering

GoMobo looks to expand online, on-the-go food ordering

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

Noah Glass, 28, founder of GoMobo. The company is looking to expand its services to 2,000 restaurants this coming year.

Noah Glass, 28, founder of GoMobo. The company is looking to expand its services to 2,000 restaurants this coming year. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

When Noah Glass worked on Wall Street, he would line up with hundreds of other professionals and wait for what seemed like an eternity to get his morning coffee. Frustrated, he wondered what it would be like to skip the line by ordering in advance.

In fact, he was willing to put off going to Harvard Business School to pursue the idea.

Glass, 28, now runs GoMobo, a company that allows customers of some 500 restaurants to skip the line by ordering through a text message, online or a mobile application. You can even order for delivery from those restaurants.

“The idea really came from my own consumer frustration,” Glass said. “Cutting out the wait in getting your food.”

The site is just one of several popular Web sites such as grubhub.com, seamlessweb.com, delivery.com, that cater to people who want food quickly. GoMobo, however, sets itself apart by offering multiple options to order food for take out or delivery. And after founding GoMobo in 2005, Glass said the company expects the number of restaurants using GoMobo to increase to more than 1,000 by year’s end and a revenue of $10 million for 2010.

That money comes from fees GoMobo charges for its services. For chain restaurants, GoMobo charges a flat daily fee of $2 to $5 per store, depending on whether the restaurant signs up for marketing services. For individual restaurants, GoMobo gets 10 percent of the transaction. So what’s in it for restaurants?

David Fellows, director of product development, works at the GoMobo headquarters in SoHo Monday. Fellows has been with the young company for three years.

David Fellows, director of product development, at the GoMobo headquarters in SoHo. Fellows has been with the young company for three years. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

A potential increase in customers who might not have ordered from the restaurant during, say, their lunch hour, if it weren’t for the convenience and speed of using GoMobo.

Dallas BBQ tested the service at its Chelsea location in August and received roughly 100 orders through GoMobo, according to Sarah Haman, account executive at SHARPLEFT marketing agency. And in September, that number jumped to 150 orders, Haman said.

They are now rolling out the service to multiple locations and are about to launch a separate Web site that GoMobo customizes for restaurants’ online ordering services. She said the restaurant has a heavy takeout business, which is why she thinks the service has been successful.

“Almost any restaurant that has a successful takeout business will be successful with online ordering,” Haman said. “With so many New Yorkers ordering delivery and takeout, this makes it even easier.”

But the service isn’t gaining traction just in New York. With the exception of the Dakotas, Glass said, the company has restaurants in all of the states. But it is more popular in urban areas, he said.

James Harrington, 56, was dropping into a SUBWAY — one of GoMobo’s clients in the Upper West Side — during his lunch break on Thursday. Harrington said he has never used GoMobo, but often uses other online ordering services, especially with pizza ordering.

Harrington, whose son, Asante Samuels, plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, said, “It’s convenient, especially now that the football season has started. But other times you just want to go to the place because you want to go for a walk.”

Cutting the time spent in waiting isn’t just a boon for the customers.

Noah Glass gives suggestions on GoMobo's Web site redesign to Mike Hirst, creative director. The company is looking to release a fresh look for its site.

Noah Glass gives suggestions on GoMobo's Web site redesign to Mike Hirst, creative director. The company is looking to release a fresh look for its site. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

Tahir Siddiqui, general manager of several SUBWAY stores in Manhattan, said they have been able to cut some of the time spent on labor and increase the number of people coming through the store. It makes the process much more efficient, he said. More people per hour means more revenue.

Siddiqui said they get a lot of online orders during the lunch hours on weekdays; people trying to save some time on their breaks.

“I think that people eventually will use this more,” he said.

He also said a majority of the time the service is very accurate in the timing of the order coming in and the customer arriving.

The Web site uses an algorithm to determine what Glass calls the “go time,” or the estimated amount of time it would take to prepare the order at any given time of day. This is based on various factors like how long it would take you to get to the restaurant, how big the order is, number of customers before you, and more. The aim is to get the order ready for you just before you arrive.

Glass said he is aiming to take this one step further. The company is working on incorporating a GPS element so that customers can order on-the-go.

“For now, we’re just trying to focus on developing our current services to more clients,” he said.

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Soup kitchen serves healthy bites during recession

Soup kitchen serves healthy bites during recession

By MEGAN GIBSON and VADIM LAVRUSIK

Chef Michael Ennes sees the effects of the struggling economy every day.

Ennes, in charge of the soup kitchen at Broadway Community, Inc., at 601 W. 114th St. in Manhattan, said he has noticed the number of middle-class visitors at the kitchen increase.

“It’s so easy to fall off the edge,” he said. “Don’t need a cyclone — a breeze could push you off.”

Because of the recession, Broadway Community has become very popular, Ennes said, but the social service center has been able to serve hundreds weekly and has maintained its volunteer support.

BCI offers a soup kitchen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as a food pantry that provides several low-income families with groceries each week and other services.

Chef Michael Ennes once owned a high-end restaurant in Manhattan, but decided that he wanted everyone to have great food available to them. (Photo Vadim Lavrusik)

Chef Michael Ennes once owned a high-end restaurant in Manhattan, but decided that he wanted everyone to have great food available to them. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

Ennes said while there is never a problem in getting food, the center is often strapped for cash to pay for kitchen supplies and utility bills.

Ennes, 57, is the food services, special projects and training director of BCI. He started at the center after the devastation of 9/11 led him to do some soul-searching. Ennes already had years of experience working as a chef in various restaurants, including a brief stint as an owner of his own restaurant, but the terrorist attack spurred him to reach out to the community. Realizing he could use his talents to help at the organization — just blocks from his Upper West Side home — he decided he wanted to transform the way the soup kitchen was run.

Faced with the task of feeding a lot of people, most soup kitchens structure their menus around canned foods. Ennes, however, said he was “constitutionally unable to do that.”

Instead, he said he focused on preparing healthy, restaurant-quality food for the center’s guests, using organic and sustainably grown foods. The soup kitchen always has a vegetarian alternative and Ennes privately calls Mondays “meatless Mondays.”

Although he has prepared dishes such as Mesopotamian meatloaf with apples, raisins and an almond cumin sauce, Ennes said that when it comes to his kitchen, “the point is not fancy, the point is nutrition.”

In addition to the soup kitchen and food pantry services, the center also has programs that demonstrate nutritious, inexpensive ways to cook the food they provide.

Ennes focuses the programs on three fundamental aspects of food preparation: nutrition education, culinary education and access to affordable, nutritious foods. The programs are designed to help people not only improve their daily eating habits but also to acquire skills that could help them find a job.

Yvonne Shields, a community chef at Broadway Community, is an example of how the program can help transform someone’s life. Shields said she wanted to give back to the program after experiencing homelessness herself just nine years ago.

She was homeless for 10 months, but got involved in some job training programs that the city provided, hoping to change her career path as a day care coordinator for private providers, without much luck.

She decided she wanted to become a chef and was able to after stumbling across Broadway Community. She completed the Food and Nutrition Training Awareness Program, better known as FANTAP, at the center. The six-week vocational food program, taught by Ennes, trained Shields in nutrition, sanitation and meal service as well as covered the $105 cost of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Department Food Protection test, which greatly improves the chances of getting hired in a restaurant.

Shields, who is now retired and lives in the Bronx, gives back to Broadway Community by volunteering her time, teaching others the cooking skills she learned. She recently did a cooking presentation, including all the produce that was being given out by the center that evening. The dish for the night: pan roasted corn and tomato salad.

T.A. Johnson, 44, was helping her with the demonstration by “prepping”— cutting up the vegetables and gathering the ingredients for the chef.

Though he isn’t homeless, Johnson is in need and has gone through “hard times,” which is why he volunteers at the center. He said often times it is difficult to get enough food as a single man at other centers. “Unless you got a bunch of kids, they barely give you anything,” he said.

The produce served at the center is some of the freshest that Johnson said he has ever seen out of any local soup kitchens. The quality of the produce is why he has kept coming back, Johnson said.

A Monday food pantry at the Broadway Community Center (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik).

A Monday food pantry at the Broadway Community Center. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

The abundance of food given out is the reason Shirley Ashworth, 61, made her way from the Bronx, despite knee and ankle injuries. “I heard the pantry was going to be really big tonight,” Ashworth said, sitting down to take a rest from the stairs and tend to her hurting ankle.

Ashworth said that in 1999, she spent the year living in her car. Broadway helped her with food and other services provided her with housing support.

“I got back on my feet, until I fell down the stairs in my apartment and broke my ankle and hurt my knee,” she said. “Now I’m just trying to stay up.”

Like Ashworth, many people facing unfortunate personal circumstances are under the additional stress of an unstable economy. However, despite the increasing number of guests visiting the center, Ennes remains optimistic that Broadway Community’s programs can help people deal with hardships.

The programs are not merely handouts, he said, but are intended to use “food as a tool to help people rebuild their lives.”

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Famous Fat Dave looks to expand food tours in his Checker

Famous Fat Dave looks to expand food tours in his Checker

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

When Dave Freedenberg was a cabbie some five years ago, every time he dropped someone off he would ask where the best local food joint was. After several years of driving up and down New York City, he knew a lot of the local food secrets.

Three years ago, he decided to use that knowledge to start his own food touring business, driving people to some of the most delicate tastes the city has to offer.

Today, he’s now better known as Famous Fat Dave. Famous? That’s something he earned from his appearances on the likes of National Public Radio and Anthony Bourdain’s TV show on the Travel Channel. Even though he’s from SoHo, on a recent tour he was recognized by school kids in Harlem.

Freedenberg doesn’t drive a yellow cab around town anymore, but a mint condition cream-colored 1982 Checker A12, the iconic 60s taxi.

“Kids love the Checker,” he said. “It’s like a toy to them.”

After getting his master’s from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs last spring, the 30-year-old plans to focus on his business full time, with aims of landing his own TV show.

He gets smiles all around from people pulling up next to him and asking him about his Checker or just passers-by on the street.

“The Checker really brings people back,” Freedenberg said. “Sometimes I feel like it gets added respect while I am driving.”

He always makes sure to give anyone stopping him his business card and talks about his tours or points to the Web site name stickered on his car door. He’s continuing to look for ways to get more business for his food tours, which mostly comes from word of mouth and his Web site, where he also writes about his food adventures.

The base rate for a tour starts at $200 for two people for two hours, and that includes the food. Each added hour or person costs $100, unless they’re kids, who eat for free. And of course, the tours are all customizable to the eater: vegetarian, meat lover, experienced foodie, New Yorker. Sometimes people will go to fewer places because they simply enjoy seeing the city in a Checker, while others are on the tour to try as much food as possible.

“Sometimes if you’re from Manhattan, you don’t venture much into the other boroughs to try those foods,” Freedenberg said. “This lets you do that.”

So what are those foods? Everything from jerk shrimp to coal oven pizza to broccoli rabe to cannoli to you name it. And often times, he knows the story behind the name of the place too. Like the Murder Burger in the Bronx. “It either got its name because it’s supposed to murder your hunger or someone was murdered there,” he said.

The restaurants are either places he’s come across in his work as a cabby or recommendations he gets from locals.

This is the appeal to many of his tasters, many of whom are out-of-towners looking to get a glimpse of the big city through its food.

Matt Vinnola, who lives in Colorado, toured with Famous Fat Dave during a guys’ weekend to the city with three of his friends last summer. He found the tour after seeing Freedenberg on the Travel Channel. Their tour lasted for about four hours and ranged from Caribbean food to key lime pie, he said.

Vinnola said Freedenberg brings a lot to the table with his knowledge of the city and the stories behind the food. “It’s something that everybody can do,” he said. “I could do this with my wife and kids.”

Jennifer Kepler was visiting the city with her husband and decided to do the tour after hearing about it on NPR.

Kepler said the places they visited weren’t ones that she would have found on her own, but would have to live in the neighborhood to find out about it.

“Most of these aren’t in the tourist book,” she said.

Freedenberg said customer favorites on the tour include Fratelli’s Pizza Cafe in the Bronx, a small place with a big taste, which he said has the best broccoli rabe.

The tasty green dish was an off-the-menu item, but has become a favorite with patrons, said Joe Fratelli, owner of the cafe. Fratelli, 45, uses many family recipes.

“There’s no special secret,” he said. “We don’t premake our stuff and use the best recipes. We don’t cheat. It’s all made right here.” The pizza brings in celebrities like Busta Rhymes, Fratelli said, showing a recent picture of the rapper eating at the cafe.

Despite the exposure from Famous Fat Dave’s tours and visits from celebrities, Fratelli said the cafe is still not that well known.

“Only if you know someone who’s been here, they would bring you here,” he said.

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Manhattan nightclub renovates, renames to stay fresh

Manhattan nightclub renovates, renames to stay fresh

A bartender takes a drink order at La Pomme nightclub on Tuesday. It was the club's first weekday open to the public after closing for three weeks for renovations.

A bartender takes a drink order at La Pomme nightclub on Tuesday. It was the club's first weekday open to the public after closing for three weeks for renovations. Photo: Vadim Lavrusik

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

The round columns at ULTRA lounge in Manhattan are gone. So is the hidden DJ booth near the entrance. Even the name ULTRA has been stripped away.

The posh nightclub closed its doors for three weeks, but reopened to the nightlife last Thursday with a new look and a new name: La Pomme – French for The Apple. Those signature columns from ULTRA have been squared-off. The DJ booth is now on the opposite side of the floor on a platform, but a bit cozier to the dancing patrons.

“There’s nothing about it that’s the same,” said Club Owner Tommy Tardie. “Nightlife is about reinvention.”

To stay fresh and competitive in the city, clubs typically have a 3 to 5-year life cycle before having to renovate and rebrand under a new name and theme.

ULTRA had a “solid” 3 years, Tardie said, but decided that it would be strategically wise to reinvent going into the year-end, which is typically when the club made the majority of its money from an increase in nightlife and hosted events.

Even the late-night food menu has changed and the catering menu now offers various meats and fish, vegetarian options, deserts and more. The club tries to stay competitive by offering in-house catering for events, something nightclubs don’t usually offer, Tardie said. And finger food at night may keep customers around through the night, he said.

The price tag for such a reinvention: $250,000, according to Tardie, who kept his staff on payroll during renovations. Nothing in the redesign was left untouched. Structurally, almost everything was shifted: bar, DJ booth, VIP area, etc.

Tardie worked with PR Design Group on the visual styling and incorporated celebrity photographer Fadil Berisha’s work to create photomurals that add to the new black and metallic wallpaper designs that include hints of mischief.

Phil Rossillo said he and his PR Design Group partner Gustavo Penengo aimed to create an intimate space in the club’s 3,500 square feet. One of the ways that is achieved is through the design of hanging circle-ceiling panels, he said, and an overall goal to tie all the elements of the club together. We are halfway through this piece and I still don’t know where it is.

The Group also did the design for predecessor ULTRA, but the needs of the clientele has changed and so the design must also, Rossillo said. For example, he said Tardie was envisioning a club with more adaptability, where a space could easily be transformed. Now the furniture is easily movable.

This adaptability was one of the more noticeable changes for Eva Shure, who recently held a fashion show at La Pomme. Shure said she needed a space that was big, but not too big and still have an intimate atmosphere. She had been to La Pomme when it was ULTRA, and said the space now feels much more suited for events.

“It’s more versatile than ULTRA,” Shure said. “ULTRA was a hard design, the colors were bright, where as this design is much more elegant with the artwork on the walls and could take on any palette you decide for your party.”

Shure described the changes as a “metamorphosis” from a lounge to an event space.

But ultimately, Rossillo echoed the sentiment of Tardie in a nightclub lifeline.

“Nightclubs are much like restaurants. After 3 to 5 years, for the most part, things do change,” Rossillo said.

For each club the reasons are different but are usually financially motivated, said Veronique Perret, founder of Event Premiere, a club promotion company.

Perret said when businesses don’t have enough clientele coming in after about 2 to 3 years they close down, renovate and start over with a new crowd.

So far, Tardie said the club has been slammed with events. The venue hosted private parties during New York Fashion Week before reopening to the public. On Tuesday, its first weekday night being reopened, there was a good showing of 50 people by 11 p.m., a good number for a club at this early in the night.

“We’re excited about the fall,” Tardie said. “So far the response has been good.”

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News organizations seek new revenue in wine clubs

News organizations seek new revenue in wine clubs

People gather to taste various wines at Slate's Wine Tasting at Sotheby's Aulden Cellars in August (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

People at Slate’s Wine Tasting at Sotheby’s Aulden Cellars in August. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

USA Today launched a Wine Club earlier this month, joining the list of publications hoping to entice readers to an online community of wine drinkers who buy wines directly from them.

The national newspaper partnered with My Wines Direct to create a Web site wine club where readers can learn about wines that are selected by a tasting panel. Members can then purchase six bottles quarterly online for $69.99 plus shipping.

Large publications are launching similar wine clubs and attaching their publications’ brands to the clubs as part of their exploration of new revenue to help close the gap from a decline in ad spending.

The New York Times launched its wine club in mid-August and other publications, including Forbes and The San Francisco Chronicle, have started their own clubs as well. The Wall Street Journal has had a wine club since last September, while online publications such as Slate are hosting wine tastings.

USA Today had been considering getting into the wine business for some time, said Christy Hartsell, director of brand licensing at USA Today, in an e-mail. The project was in the works for several months and the paper even held various tasting events before the launch, Hartsell said.

“Seeing other publications entering the same arena just shows that there is active interest in the space,” Hartsell said.

All the publications have been quiet on their revenue projections and levels of membership.

Alice Ting, executive director for brand development at The New York Times, would not disclose revenue from the new club but in an e-mail she said the company is pleased with the response.

“As we all know, all media companies are facing tough challenges with advertising revenues,” Ting said. “Pursuing other revenue streams helps diversify the types of revenues we realize.”

Because both the USA Today Wine Club and The New York Times Wine Club sites launched recently, numbers for Web site visits were unavailable. The Wall Street Journal wine club site peaked in August with 44,000 unique visits, with more than 20,000 in June and July, according to Compete.com statistics. The numbers, however, don’t show how many of the visitors  actually join the clubs.

MyWinesDirect.com, which operates The USA Today Wine Club Web site, received some 57,000 unique visits in August.

USA Today Wine Club

The USA Today Wine Club Web site.

That makes Bryan Dougherty, president and CEO of My Wines Direct, optimistic. The appeal is that the 10 people who make up panels that select the wines for the club consist of regular people, said Dougherty.

“You don’t have to be an expert,” Dougherty said. “It’s not hard to know whether you like the wine or not.”

He said the wine business has always been driven by “expert” opinions, but the panel process gives it more of a consumer opinions focus, which he said people tend to value more. Dougherty gave the example of when he looks for a hotel:  People’s reviews on the site make a big difference on whether he picks the hotel or not, he said.

But even if readers value the opinion of the panels and the name of the publication attached, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to join the club.

At least not Pete Dybdahl, a Long Island wine enthusiast who attended Slate’s wine tasting at Aulden Cellars at Sotheby’s in Manhattan on Aug. 26.

Though the credibility of a wine recommendation and the source of it matters to Dybdahl, a former newspaper reporter, he said he still wouldn’t join a publication’s wine club because clubs aren’t really appealing to him. That doesn’t mean he’s not sympathetic toward a publication “doing what it has to do to stay afloat,” he said.

Slate’s wine tasting was free, which was one of the draws for the roughly 120 people who attended. The magazine’s wine critic, Mike Steinberger, led the tasting of several wines and discussed the opinions of readers in attendance, as well as those tweeting their critiques from home. The event included its own Twitter hashtag and account, allowing readers from across the country to participate in the event by following the feed and offering their own two cents.

Slate group chairman Jacob Weisberg said the event was  aimed at engaging readers.

“A publication is a kind of club and so an event like this creates that idea,” Weisberg said.

The chairman’s assistant, Julia Felsenthal, said the magazine isn’t pursuing a wine club at the moment, but still hopes to host future tasting events.

Weisberg said the magazine didn’t make any money from the event, though attendees were welcome to buy wines from Aulden Cellars, which provided the wines.

Ben Bradford, assistant manager at Aulden Cellars, said that for the size of the event, sales from attendees were “decent,” but would not give specifics. Bradford said Aulden has considered partnering with a publication for a wine club, but said the store is looking to grow more and establish itself.

“I think a publication’s name attached matters,” Bradford said.  “It adds credibility.”

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